Of course, science, health and environmental reporting has also been honored sporadically in other categories as well, particularly investigative reporting, public service, and national reporting. The New York Times’ John Noble Wilford won in 1984 in the national reporting category for his science coverage. Several prominent science and medical reporters, including Natalie Angier, Deborah Blum, and Diana Sugg, had also won prizes for beat reporting until the category was dropped two years ago.
While Harmon concentrates on science and health, she is not part of the Times’ highly respected group of more than twenty science, health and environment beat reporters and editors. Instead, she’s part of a small team of national reporters chronicling “How We Live” by focusing on contemporary issues across society. She previously covered technology and the Internet, and said her interest in genetic testing is in part due to a family history of breast cancer.
As a journalist, Harmon wanted to experience firsthand how it felt to know about her own genetic predispositions. So she submitted a saliva sample to a California biotech start-up company called 23andMe (the name comes from the twenty-three pairs of human chromosomes), which offers DNA testing and risk analysis for around $1,000. Harmon learned that her risk of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s was about average (as far as today’s limited information can tell), but she was surprised to find signs that her heart disease risk may be higher than normal.
Harmon was in the Times’ third-floor newsroom when the staff gathered late Monday afternoon for the highly anticipated Pulitzers announcement. Her elation, and enormous smile, is captured in a photo on the paper’s Web site. She is standing beside a towering Walt Bogdanich, the paper’s intrepid, 57-year-old investigative reporter who shared this year’s Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting-his third-for another health-related series, “A Toxic Pipeline.” Bogdanich and colleague Jake Hooker exposed hazardous ingredients in cough medicine, toothpaste and other consumer products imported from China.
The 2008 Pulitzers tapped two other health-related series. One prize went to the Chicago Tribune, which also won in the investigative category, for exposing poor regulation of lead-laced toys and other children’s products. The other went to The Washington Post for its remarkable series on the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which earned the public service award.
The common denominator in all this Pulitzer-winning work, past and present, is bringing complex scientific stories to life in a way that had meaning for the reader, and being given adequate time and space to do so. Alas, those two things are in very short supply these days. Thankfully, Harmon’s genetics articles were generally given prominent display on the Times front page and jumped inside, often to a full one or two-page spread. Online, they were packaged with great graphics, videos of the people profiled, and commentary from the author.
In an era when newspapers struggle mightily for readers and revenues, these prestigious awards for serious health and science journalism carry more meaning than ever, especially for veteran science writers like Jon Franklin who worry about the survival of such journalism in the nation’s newsrooms. He won the first explanatory Pulitzer award in 1985 for his seven-part Baltimore Evening Sun series on molecular psychiatrists. Now a 66-year-old journalism professor at the University of Maryland, he sees a shift toward shallow celebrity-centered journalism, with little time and space for newspaper reporters to do more than log the news. “The number of staff science writers is diminishing so fast, and today most science writing is really rewriting press releases,” says Franklin.
So editors take note. If you want to take home one of journalism’s top honors, order your reporters out the newsroom and let them roam free in the wide-ranging terrain of science, health and the environment. They may bring back stories that people really care about.